As I sat listening to this year’s United Way Ottawa Community Investment announcement, I was prepared for a few smiles, camaraderie with familiar faces, and the opportunity to contribute some applause for deserving people. I’ve been in the charitable sector for about 20 years now as an employee, volunteer, board member, spokesperson, and many other roles, so I’ve seen a lot and as a result, I’m not easily moved. But I have to say the story of Guy Clairoux touched me pretty deeply.
Please watch the video that tells his story, but here’s why it really hits home for me.
Guy had a rough time at school and was targeted because he wore glasses. So he took off his glasses and did not wear them in class. The problem with that solution is he could not see very well, and the school labeled him as having a disability, and he was segregated into the Special Education program. Desperate for social connection, he found some willing comrade outcasts who introduced him to smoking, drugs, and crime.
This part of the story touched me for a variety of reasons, one of them being that although Guy was misdiagnosed before being sent to Special Education, it doesn’t really matter – segregating people does not help them. It punishes them.
We need our schools to be inclusive places where students learn to be together regardless of their differences. When our schools instead reinforce difference, we end up with adults who carry on what was taught to them – that people with disabilities belong in the basement, somewhere down the hall, somewhere around the corner, somewhere out of sight. There is no opportunity to learn about reciprocity and value.
It is not well understood that the 75% unemployment rate for people with intellectual disabilities has little to do with “skills” or the need for an updated resume. The problem is that potential employers and co-workers have been taught their entire lives that “those people” belong in separate places. At LiveWorkPlay we take pride in working with United Way Ottawa and other partners to demonstrate that including people with disabilities changes workplaces for the better.
The other part of the story that touched me was seeing Guy right in front of me as a cherished hero of his local community. He turned his life around (something United Way Ottawa donors support) and is credited with helping to dramatically improve the lives of the residents of Regina Towers (part of Ottawa Community Housing).
As it turns out, I know the building well. I went to Regina Street Public School and passed the building every day. I was also aware that for a period of time the Regina Towers community felt unsafe due to the unwelcoming presence of some residents that were engaging in criminal and other negative behaviour. It became one of those buildings where people would cringe when the name was mentioned.
What is remarkable (as you listen to the tenants speaking in the video) there are now people hoping to spend their entire lives at Regina Towers. They don’t want to go anywhere else. They are home. They feel safe.
But it is the same building. But different.
Because people like Guy changed it.
Because people believed in him and he was able to turn his life around, and was able to apply his life lessons to helping others.
Too many times, particularly when the topic is addictions, I hear people talking about the waste of money and energy that goes to helping addicts. Sometimes the comments go further, as in, perhaps it is best to let addicts kill themselves with their own habit.
That’s a pretty ugly sentiment, but I’ve learned that this is mainly borne out of fear and ignorance, and perhaps a sense of hopelessness – that “those people can’t be helped.”
I looked Guy in the eyes today. There is life and light. There is a powerful energy that contrasts in a compelling manner from the hollow shell that was Guy as an addict. Guy’s life could have ended many times, and that would have been a tragedy, as is all loss of life…but Guy didn’t merely survive. Because he got the help he needed, he is a beloved leader in his community.
In conclusion, if you are in position to advocate for inclusion, speak up. Be a part of the solution. If you sometimes feel frustrated by people like “Guy the addict” try to remember that the person could be “Guy the community hero” in waiting.